“Demon Copperfield,” HarperCollins, 2022.
By Cecilia Cicone | OSV News
In 1850, Charles Dickens exposed the dark realities of the life of the parentless child in coastal England with “David Copperfield.” In 2022, the clever Barbara Kingsolver set out to do the same for rural America through “Demon Copperhead.”
Raised by an opioid-addicted mother in a single-wide trailer and never having known his father, Damon Fields finds inclusion in his Appalachian community through the nickname he is given: Demon Copperhead. In the mountains, he explains, you are only truly accepted once you have received a nickname. Unfortunately, this is the only fragment of acceptance that Demon will have for most of his life.
In a way similar to the Dickens classic, “Demon Copperhead,” the titular character narrates his own life beginning from the moment of his birth into adulthood. Moving from his mother’s trailer to a neighbor’s home and eventually into foster care, Demon Copperhead’s life is defined by transience and constant rejection.
The one piece of good fortune that marks Demon’s life surrounds the strange circumstances of his birth — he was born in his amniotic sac on a bathroom floor while his mother was passed out from drugs. According to an old wives’ tale, his neighbor tells him, this means that he will never die by drowning.
While oddly specific, Demon holds tightly to this small token of good luck. His father died by drowning, but Demon feels a certain invincibility around water. He dreams of going to the ocean, the one place he hopes to be truly safe.
At a hefty 546 pages, the reader naturally becomes invested in Demon’s life, celebrating his successes and feeling crushed by his misfortunes and innocent missteps, such as the time he almost makes it to the ocean but must turn around because one of the girls in his car is struck by violent motion sickness. This book is a page-turner, full of quirky characters who give Demon a hope that he may finally possess the peace he longs to find.
Kingsolver builds on the themes of her previous books, such as “The Poisonwood Bible,” writing with a strong understanding of the fallen nature of humanity juxtaposed with its inherent goodness. She manages to flesh all of that out in believable ways, both with her main character and with the people Demon encounters in his suffering. These two real and ever-warring forces battle it out over the course of the novel, leaving the reader to wonder — and worry — whether goodness or human frailty will prevail.
Bucking the modernist trend of featuring a character whose success comes through hyper-independence, Kingsolver tells the story of a young man who desperately needs to be able to rely on other people, just as anyone does in reality. Demon never fully accepts his circumstances and carries about him a surprisingly buoyant, ultimately lifesaving source of spirited resilience that makes our hero an inspiring stand-out as other characters in his story succumb to life’s burdens.
This modern rewrite of “David Copperfield ” is not the story of a remote superhero but an identifiable and bracing take on “the every man” — every person who has experienced life with needs gone unmet, and who has battled the demons of generational trauma. As such, most of us can identify with these characters, which seals our interest.
“Demon Copperhead” is an exemplary work of fiction, expertly weaving humor and wit with existential meaning and the types of suffering that are all-too-commonplace in rural America, but too seldom acknowledged. Readers should be aware that these topics include heavy drug and alcohol abuse, death, food scarcity and domestic violence.
Cecilia Cicone is an author and communicator who works in diocesan ministry in Northwest Indiana.